News gatherers and reporters, always anxious to convey messages with the potency and urgency they deserve, have used several headlines to describe global efforts to reopen in the face of the Covid-19 pandemic. News reports have variously referred to relaxed lockdowns as open-air laboratories, a global trial-and-error, and a continual process of experimentation and recalibration. The world does not have a road map for the current health situation.
Namibian President Hage Geingob has noted that “the fight against Covid-19 will not be a sprint. It will be a marathon that will demand our collective endurance.” Meanwhile, in South Africa, President Cyril Ramaphosa has said that “the transition to the next phase of the coronavirus response may be more difficult.”
Writing in The New Yorker, surgeon and public health researcher, Atul Gawande, says that “the four pillars – hygiene, distancing, screening, and masks – will not return us to normal life.”
In the same vein, The Telegraph newspaper writes that “making the right decisions at the right time will not be easy, but explaining the decisions in a way that brings the public along could just be as difficult. The stakes here are high. Get it badly wrong, and the lockdown gates will have to slam shut again.”
Some reports have indicated that Germany will only allow older children to return to school because they can better comply with rules on masks and distancing. On the other hand, Denmark prefers opening schools to younger students since they are at less risk. The whole world is seized with this challenge of ensuring that children do not fall behind in their education.
At a local pharmacy, it seemed easy to follow the new rules of containment: only five customers are permitted at a time. Admission is only possible through discs numbered one to five, which the security guard gives at the entrance. In addition, he checks temperatures and ensures that customers apply the hand sanitizer that is provided.
A neighbouring supermarket allows fifty customers at a time. Similar routines greet customers: temperature checks, the hand sanitizer, and the record book where customers leave their contact details. But, how is the guard confident that the number of customers in the supermarket does not exceed fifty at any one time?
My easy answer is that he watches the customers at the tills; if two customers check out, for example, he admits two. However, after trying to work on this arrangement, I realise that it is fraught with challenges, chief of which, is the curse of human error. I search instead for an electronic board or other dependable command structure that may be helping the security guard. I am still to find an answer.
As the door to the lift opens, I notice boxes drawn at each of the four corners to facilitate physical distancing. In ordinary times, the lift can accommodate ten people, very likely more, on busy occasions. I recall that Chip Cutter and Suzanne Vranica of the Wall Street Journal have written about “single-person elevators.”
“Companies, in adapting the workplace for Covid-19, are reversing a push to cram workers into tighter spaces. When employees file back into American workplaces, many will find the office transformed: single-person elevators, closed cafeterias, and desks separated by plastic. And many of these changes won’t go away until the virus does.”
The changes emphasise humanity’s difficult position on the horns of a dilemma; how to choose between two unpleasant and unappealing options. It has been argued that premature relaxation of containment measures may give way to a sense of helplessness.
A professor of epidemiology at the University of California, George Rutherford, says it is nearly impossible to keep an appropriate distance from other people in confined spaces like elevators. He suggests that “people should face the wall so that you’re not breathing in someone else’s breath.”
Without doubt, world communities face the challenge of responding to circumstances which demand unfamiliar ways of doing things. Ordinarily, change may happen in small, gradual steps. The pandemic, however, brings quick and wholesale changes that confront and ruthlessly test the entire world.